The Clybourne Park in the title is a Chicago neighborhood that in Act 1 is an all-white enclave where middle-aged couple Bev and Russ live in the tight-lipped domesticity of the ’50s. We learn that the couple is selling their home … and then later we learn they’re selling it to what would be the neighborhood’s first black family. We watch as the repercussions of their decision ripple through their friendships and even in their relationship with their maid Francine, who is black, and it’s here that the actors come alive. Sally Nystuen Vahle as Bev exemplifies the sweet exterior-with-a-seething-interior XXSXXX we’ve come to identify as a fact of life in the ’50s. Vahle delivers a measured and assured performance and veers from mild to tortured to mild with a veteran’s deftness. Chamblee Ferguson as Russ isn’t asked to keep as much emotion under the surface and emits it with thunder.
The play’s second act fast-forwards to the same Clybourne Park home in 2009, well after the neighborhood has become predominantly black and is undergoing gentrification, i.e., the return of white residents. A young white couple seeks to buy the house and in the process of trying to renovate the now historical home ignites a war of words with the black couple that has ties to the building. In this act, piquant performances by Allison Pistorius, Steven Michael Walters and Tiffany Hobbs light up the stage, their tart exchanges revealing reliances on stereotypes, accusations of racism and … howling, armor-piercing jokes.
The parties don’t quite work out their differences in the end, but Clybourne Park’s success is in getting touchy topics out of the bag and into the public conversation. Winning performances make it an enjoyable one.
(Pssst! In a fascinating pairing, DTC is showing Raisin in the Sun in repertory during Clybourne‘s run. It’s a perfect companion piece, in also dealing with neighborhood integration in a ’50s suburb. Learn more here.)
‘Clybourne Park’ by Dallas Theater Center
Wyly Theatre through Oct. 27.
Get tickets here.